Mozart’s Serenade for Winds in C minor, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 3, and Mozart’s Symphony No. 39

The Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra on Wednesday, August 20.

Much of Mozart’s music sounds relatively easy, which is why it can be so difficult. Romantic sturm und drang can hide all manner of sins, but unclouded classicism isn’t so forgiving. Without a lot of distracting flash, Mozart’s music must be played impeccably to really sparkle.

Sadly, the festival orchestra was not impeccable Wednesday evening. Maybe it was because the musicians don’t play together regularly, maybe they just had an off night, but the music never crystallized the way it should, and the winds had tuning issues, which made the Serenade for Winds rather unfortunate. Hearing lackluster Mozart at the Mostly Mozart Festival left me a bit dismayed, but the other composers’ works—and the piano soloists—made up for that disappointment.

The concert proper was preceded by a short pre-concert recital, given by pianist Inon Barnatan. He first performed a Mozart piano sonata in A minor with refreshing sensitivity. That particular sonata isn’t as lyrical as some of Mozart’s others, but Barnatan nonetheless made each line sing with nimble fingers and beautiful dynamic control.

Even better than the sonata, though, was his performance of Chopin’s Barcarolle. The barcarolle is meant to evoke the folk songs and punting of Venetian gondaliers, and Chopin’s single contribution to the form has the requisite lilting melody and gentle triple meter. The piece features a lot of tricky work in thirds, sixths, and octaves, but Barnatan made the figures sound effortless, never overdoing the rubato (always a temptation with Chopin) but letting the rippling rises and falls build on their own into a gorgeous climax.

The concert featured another pianist, Mihaela Ursuleasa, as the soloist in Beethoven’s third piano concerto. She, too, was excellent. She played with a wonderfully driving sense of rhythm (even making vague conducting gestures with her left hand when her right was tackling runs on its own) and collaborated beautifully with the orchestra. I thought her fortissimos could have been a shade grander and more expansive, but her pianissimos were lovely, delicate without being slight.

Her Beethoven was the highlight of the concert for me, but ironically, I found myself half-wishing she had played Mozart instead: her blithe, graceful agility would suit the repertory well. Perhaps I’ll get to hear her perform one his works at next year’s festival. In the meantime, though, she and Barnatan have reminded me that I ought to make more of an effort to hear pianists perform. Now that I stop to think about it, it’s been ages since I’ve been to a piano recital, which is odd considering that it’s one of the instruments I play myself (albeit at a decidedly nonprofessional level). Given how much I enjoyed their performances, I’ll have to remember to make room for the piano as I plan my way through the 2008–09 concert season.

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